By B. M. Bower
1. AN AMBITIOUS MAN-CHILD WAS BUDDY 2. THE TRAIL HERD 3. SOME INDIAN LORE 4. BUDDY GIVES WARNING 5. BUDDY RUNS TRUE TO TYPE 6. THE YOUNG EAGLE MUST FLY 7. BUD FLIPS A COIN WITH FATE 8. THE MULESHOE 9. LITTLE LOST 10. BUD MEETS THE WOMAN 11. GUILE AGAINST THE WILY 12. SPORT O' KINGS 13. THE SINKS 14. EVEN MUSHROOMS HELP 15. WHY BUD MISSED A DANCE 16. WHILE THE GOING'S GOOD 17. GUARDIAN ANGELS ARE RIDING "POINT" 18. THE CATROCK GANG 19. BUD RIDES THROUGH CATROCK AND LOSES MARIAN 20. "PICK YOUR FOOTING!" 21. TRAILS END
CHAPTER ONE: AN AMBITIOUS MAN-CHILD WAS BUDDY
In hot mid afternoon when the acrid, gray dust cloud kicked up by the listless plodding of eight thousand cloven hoofs formed the only blot on the hard blue above the Staked Plains, an ox stumbled and fell awkwardly under his yoke, and refused to scramble up when his negro driver shouted and prodded him with the end of a willow gad.
"Call your master, Ezra," directed a quiet woman voice gone weary and toneless with the heat and two restless children. "Don't beat the poor brute. He can't go any farther and carry the yoke, much less pull the wagon."
Ezra dropped the gad and stepped upon the wagon tongue where he might squint into the dust cloud and decide which gray, plodding horseman alongside the herd was Robert Birnie. Far across the sluggish river of grimy backs, a horse threw up its head with a peculiar sidelong motion, and Ezra's eyes lightened with recognition. That was the colt, Rattler, chafing against the slow pace he must keep. Hands cupped around big, chocolate-colored lips and big, yellow-white teeth, Ezra whoo-ee-ed the signal that called the nearest riders to the wagon that held the boss's family.
Bob Birnie and another man turned and came trotting back, and at the call a scrambling youngster peered over his mother's shoulder in the forward opening of the prairie schooner.
"O-oh, Dulcie! We gonna git a wile cow agin!"
Dulcie was asleep and did not answer, and the woman in the slat sun-bonnet pushed back with her elbow the eager, squirming body of her eldest. "Stay in the wagon, Buddy. Mustn't get down amongst the oxen. One might kick you. Lie down and take a nap with sister. When you waken it will be nice and cool again."
"Not s'eepy!" objected Buddy for the twentieth time in the past two hours. But he crawled back, and his mother, relieved of his restless presence, leaned forward to watch the approach of her husband and the cowboy. This was the second time in the past two days that an ox had fallen exhausted, and her eyes showed a trace of anxiety. With the feed so poor and the water so scarce, it seemed as though the heavy wagon, loaded with a few household idols too dear to leave behind, a camp outfit and the necessary clothing and bedding for a woman and two children, was going to be a real handicap on the drive.
"Robert, if we had another wagon, I could drive it and make the load less for these four oxen," she suggested when her husband came up. "A lighter wagon, perhaps with one team of strong horses, or even with a yoke of oxen, I could drive well enough, and relieve these poor brutes." She pushed back her sun-bonnet and with it a mass of red-brown hair that curled damply on her forehead, and smiled disarmingly. "Buddy would be the happiest baby boy alive if I could let him drive now and then!" she added humorously.
"Can't make a wagon and an extra yoke of oxen out of this cactus patch," Bob Birnie grinned good humoredly. "Not even to tickle Buddy. I'll see what I can do when we reach Olathe. But you won't have to take a man's place and drive, Lassie." He took the cup of water she drew from a keg and proffered-water was precious on the Staked Plains, that season-and his eyes dwelt on her fondly while he drank. Then, giving her hand a squeeze when he returned the cup, he rode back to scan the herd for an animal big enough and well-conditioned enough to supplant the worn-out ox.
"Aren't you thirsty, Frank Davis? I think a cup of water will do you good," she called out to the cowboy, who had dismounted to tighten his forward cinch in expectation of having to use his rope.
The cowboy dropped stirrup from saddle horn and came forward stiff-leggedly, leading his horse. His sun-baked face, grimed with the dust of the herd, was aglow with heat, and his eyes showed gratitude. A cup of water from the hand of the boss's wife was worth a gallon from the barrel slip-slopping along in the lurching chuck-wagon.
"How's the kids makin' out, Mis' Birnie?" Frank inquired politely when he had swallowed the last drop and had wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "It's right warm and dusty t'day."
"They're asleep at last, thank goodness," she answered, glancing back at a huddle of pink calico that showed just over the crest of a pile of crumpled quilts. "Buddy has a hard time of it. He's all man in his disposition, and all baby in size. He's been teasing to walk with the niggers and help drive the drag. Is my husband calling?"
Her husband was, and Frank rode away at a leisurely trot. Haste had little to do with trailing a herd, where eight miles was called a good day's journey and six an average achievement. The fallen ox was unyoked by the mellow-voiced but exasperated Ezra, and since he would not rise, the three remaining oxen, urged by the gad and Ezra's upbraiding, swung the wagon to one side and moved it a little farther after the slow-moving herd, so that the exhausted animal could rest, and the raw recruit be yoked in where he could do the least harm and would the speediest learn a new lesson in discomfort. Mrs. Birnie glanced again at the huddle of pink in the nest of quilts behind a beloved chest of drawers in the wagon, and sighed with relief because Buddy slept.
An ambitious man-child already was Buddy, accustomed to certain phrases that, since he could toddle, had formed inevitable accompaniment to his investigative footsteps. "L'k-out-dah!" he had for a long time believed to be his name among the black folk of his world. White folk had varied it slightly. He knew that "Run-to-mother-now" meant that something he would delight in but must not watch was going to take place. Spankings more or less official and not often painful signified that big folks did not understand him and his activities, or were cross about something. Now, mother did not want him to watch the wild cow run and jump at the end of a rope until finally forced to submit to the ox-yoke and help pull the wagon. Buddy loved to watch them, but he understood that mother was afraid the wild cow might step on him. Why she should want him to sleep when he was not sleepy he had not yet discovered, and so disdained to give it serious consideration.
"Not s'eepy," Buddy stated again emphatically as a sort of mental dismissal of the command, and crawled carefully past Sister and lifted a flap of the canvas cover. A button—the last button—popped off his pink apron and the sleeves rumpled down over his hands. It felt all loose and useless, so Buddy stopped long enough to pull the apron off and throw it beside Sister before he crawled under the canvas flap and walked down the spokes of a rear wheel. He did not mean to get in the way of the wild cow, but he did want action for his restless legs. He thought that if he went away from the wagon and the herd and played while they were catching the wild cow, it would be just the same as if he took a nap. Mother hadn't thought of it, or she might have suggested it.
So Buddy went away from the wagon and down into a shallow dry wash where the wild cow would not come, and played. The first thing he saw was a scorpion-nasty old bug that will bite hard-and he threw rocks at it until it scuttled under a ledge out of sight. The next thing he saw that interested him at all was a horned toad; a hawn-toe, he called it, after Ezra's manner of speaking. Ezra had caught a hawntoe for him a few days ago, but it had mysteriously disappeared out of the wagon. Buddy did not connect his mother's lack of enthusiasm with the disappearance. Her sympathy with his loss had seemed to him real, and he wanted another, fully believing that in this also mother would be pleased. So he took after this particular HAWN-toe, that crawled into various hiding places only to be spied and routed out with small rocks and a sharp stick.
The dry wash remained shallow, and after a while Buddy, still in hot pursuit of the horned toad, emerged upon the level where the herd had passed. The wagon was nowhere in sight, but this did not disturb Buddy. He was not lost. He knew perfectly that the brown cloud on his narrowed horizon was the dust over the herd, and that the wagon was just behind, because the wind that day was blowing from the southwest, and also because the oxen did not walk as fast as the herd. In the distance he saw the "Drag" moving lazily along after the dust-cloud, with barefooted niggers driving the laggard cattle and singing dolefully as they walked. Emphatically Buddy was not lost.
He wanted that particular horned toad, however, and he kept after it until he had it safe in his two hands.
It happened that when he pounced at last upon the toad he disturbed with his presence a colony of red ants on moving day. The close ranks of them, coming and going in a straight line, caught and held Buddy's attention to the exclusion of everything else—save the horned toad he had been at such pains to acquire. He tucked the toad inside his underwaist and ignored its wriggling against his flesh while he squatted in the hot sunshine and watched the ants, his mind one great question. Where were they going, and what were they carrying, and why were they all in such a hurry?
Buddy had to know. To himself he called trailherd—but father's cattle did not carry white lumps of stuff on their heads, and furthermore, they all walked together in the same direction; whereas the ant herd traveled both ways. Buddy made sure of this, and then started off, following what he had decided was the real trail of the ants. Most children would have stirred them up with a stick; Buddy let them alone so that he could see what they were doing all by themselves.
The ants led him to a tiny hole with a finely pulverized rim just at the edge of a sprawly cactus. This last Buddy carefully avoided, for even at four years old he had long ago learned the sting of cactus thorns. A rattlesnake buzzed warning when he backed away and the shock to Buddy's nerves roused within him the fighting spirit. Rattlesnakes he knew also, as the common enemy of men and cattle. Once a steer had been bitten on the nose and his head had swollen up so he couldn't eat. Buddy did not want that to happen to HIM.
He made sure that the horned toad was safe, chose a rock as large as he could lift and heave from him, and threw it at the buzzing, gray coil. He did not wait to see what happened, but picked up another rock, a terrific buzzing sounding stridently from the coil. He threw another and another with all the force of his healthy little muscles. For a four-year-old he aimed well; several of the rocks landed on the coil.
The snake wriggled feebly from under the rocks and tried to crawl away and hide, its rattles clicking listlessly. Buddy had another rock in his hands and in his eyes the blue fire of righteous conquest. He went close-close enough to have brought a protesting cry from a grownup-lifted the rock high as he could and brought it down fair on the battered head of the rattler. The loathsome length of it winced and thrashed ineffectively, and after a few minutes lay slack, the tail wriggling aimlessly.
Buddy stood with his feet far apart and his hands on his hips, as he had seen the cowboy do whom he had unconsciously imitated in the killing.
"Snakes like Injuns. Dead'ns is good 'ens," He observed sententiously, still playing the part of the cowboy. Then, quite sure that the snake was dead, he took it by the tail, felt again of the horned toad on his chest and went back to see what the ants were doing.
When so responsible a person as a grownup stops to watch the orderly activities of an army of ants, minutes and hours slip away unnoticed. Buddy was absolutely fascinated, lost to everything else. When some instinct born in the very blood of him warned Buddy that time was passing, he stood up and saw that the sun hung just above the edge of the world, and that the sky was a glorious jumble of red and purple and soft rose.
The first thing Buddy did was to stoop and study attentively the dead snake, to see if the tail still wiggled. It did not, though he watched it for a full minute. He looked at the sun—it had not set but glowed big and yellow as far from the earth as his father was tall. Ezra had lied to him. Dead snakes did not wiggle their tails until sundown.
Buddy looked for the dust cloud of the herd, and was surprised to find it smaller than he had ever seen it, and farther away. Indeed, he could only guess that the faint smudge on the horizon was the dust he had followed for more days than he could count. He was not afraid, but he was hungry and he thought his mother would maybe wonder where he was, and he knew that the point-riders had already stopped pushing the herd ahead, and that the cattle were feeding now so that they would bed down at dusk. The chuckwagon was camped somewhere close by, and old Step-and-a-Half, the lame cook, was stirring things in his Dutch ovens over the camp-fire. Buddy could almost smell the beans and the meat stew, he was so hungry. He turned and took one last, long look at the endless stream of ants still crawling along, picked up the dead snake by the tail, cupped the other hand over the horned toad inside his waist, and started for camp.
After a while he heard someone shouting, but beyond faint relief that he was after all near his "Outfit", Buddy paid no attention. The boys were always shouting to one another, or yelling at their horses or at the herd or at the niggers. It did not occur to him that they might be shouting for him, until from another direction he heard Ezra's unmistakable, booming voice. Ezra sang a thunderous baritone when the niggers lifted up their voices in song around their camp-fire, and he could be heard for half a mile when he called in real earnest. He was calling now, and Buddy, stopping to listen, fancied that he heard his name. A little farther on, he was sure of it.
"OOO-EE! Whah y'all, Buddy? OOO-EEE!"
"I'm a-comin'," Buddy shrilled impatiently. "What y' all want?"
His piping voice did not carry to Ezra, who kept on shouting. The radiant purple and red and gold above him deepened, darkened. The whole wild expanse of half-barren land became suddenly a place of unearthly beauty that dulled to the shadows of dusk. Buddy trudged on, keeping to the deep-worn buffalo trails which the herd had followed and scored afresh with their hoofs. He could not miss his way-not Buddy, son of Bob Birnie, owner of the Tomahawk outfit-but his legs were growing pretty tired, and he was so hungry that he could have sat down on the ground and cried with the gnawing food-call of his empty little stomach.
He could hear other voices shouting at intervals now, but Ezra's voice was the loudest and the closest, and it seemed to Buddy that Ezra never once stopped calling. Twice Buddy called back that he was a-comin', but Ezra shouted just the same: "OOO-EE! WHAH Y' ALL, BUDDY? OOO-EE!"
Imperceptibly dusk deepened to darkness. A gust of anger swept Buddy's soul because he was tired, because he was hungry and he was yet a long way from the camp, but chiefly because Ezra persisted in calling after Buddy had several times answered. He heard someone whom he recognized as Frank Davis, but by this time he was so angry that he would not say a word, though he was tempted to ask Frank to take him up on his horse and let him ride to camp. He heard others-and once the beat of hoofs came quite close. But there was a wide streak of Scotch stubbornness in Buddy—along with several other Scotch streaks—and he continued his stumbling progress, dragging the snake by the tail, his other hand holding fast the horned toad.
His heart jumped up and almost choked him when first saw the three twinkles on the ground which knew were not stars but camp-fires.
Quite unexpectedly he trudged into the firelight where Step-and-a-Half was stirring delectable things in the iron pots and stopping every minute or so to stare anxiously into the gloom. Buddy stood blinking and sniffing, his eyes fixed upon the Dutch ovens.
"I'm HUNGRY!" he announced accusingly, gripping the toad that had begun to squirm at the heat and light. "I kilt a snake an' I'm HUNGRY!"
"Good gorry!" swore Step-and-a-Half, and whipped out his six-shooter and fired three shots into the air.
Footsteps came scurrying. Buddy's mother swept him into her arms, laughing with a little whimpering sound of tears in the laughter. Buddy wriggled protestingly in her arms.
"L'kout! Y' all SKUCSH 'im! I got a HAWN-toe; wight here." He patted his chest gloatingly. "An' I got a snake. I kilt 'im. An' I'm HUNGRY."
Mother of Buddy though she was, Lassie set him down hurriedly and surveyed her man-child from a little distance.
"Buddy! Drop that snake instantly'"
Buddy obeyed, but he planted a foot close to his kill and pouted his lips. "'S my snake. I kilt 'im," He said firmly. He pulled the horned toad from his waist-front and held it tightly in his two hands. "An's my hawn-toe. I ketche'd'm. 'Way ova dere," he added, tilting his tow head toward the darkness behind him.
Bob Birnie rode up at a gallop, pulled up his horse in the edge of the fire glow and dismounted hastily.
Bob Birnie never needed more than one glance to furnish him the details of a scene. He saw the very small boy confronting his mother with a dead snake, a horned toad and a stubborn set to his lips. He saw that the mother looked rather helpless before the combination—and his brown mustache hid a smile. He walked up and looked his first-born over.
"Buddy," He demanded sternly, "where have you been?"
"Out dere. Kilt a snake. Ants was trailing a herd. I got a HAWN-toe. An' I'm hungry!"
"You know better than to leave the wagon, young man. Didn't you know we had to get out and hunt you, and mother was scared the wolves might eat you? Didn't you hear us calling you? Why didn't you answer?"
Buddy looked up from under his baby eyebrows at his father, who seemed very tall and very terrible. But his bare foot touched the dead snake and he took comfort. "I was comin'," he said. "I WASN'T los'. I bringed my snake and my hawn-toe. An' dey—WASN'T—any—woluffs!" The last word came muffled, buried in his mother's skirts.
CHAPTER TWO: THE TRAIL HERD
Day after day the trail herd plodded slowly to the north, following the buffalo trails that would lead to water, and the crude map of one who had taken a herd north and had returned with a tale of vast plains and no rivals. Always through the day the dust cloud hung over the backs of the cattle, settled into the clothes of those who followed, grimed the pink aprons of Buddy and his small sister Dulcie so that they were no longer pink. Whenever a stream was reached, mother searched patiently for clear water and an untrampled bit of bank where she might do the family washing, leaving Ezra to mind the children. But even so the crust and the wear and tear of travel remained to harass her fastidious soul.
Buddy remembered that drive as he could not remember the comfortable ranch house of his earlier babyhood. To him afterward it seemed that life began with the great herd of cattle. He came to know just how low the sun must slide from the top of the sky before the "point" would spread out with noses to the ground, pausing wherever a mouthful of grass was to be found. When these leaders of the herd stopped, the cattle would scatter and begin feeding. If there was water they would crowd the banks of the stream or pool, pushing and prodding one another with their great, sharp horns. Later, when the sun was gone and dusk crept out of nowhere, the cowboys would ride slowly around the herd, pushing it quietly into a smaller compass. Then, if Buddy were not too sleepy, he would watch the cattle lie down to chew their cuds in deep, sighing content until they slept. It reminded Buddy vaguely of when mother popped corn in a wire popper, a long time ago-before they all lived in a wagon and went with the herd. First one and two-then there would be three, four, five, as many as Buddy could count-then the whole herd would be lying down.
Buddy loved the camp-fires. The cowboys would sit around the one where his father and mother sat—mother with Dulcie in her arms—and they would smoke and tell stories, until mother told him it was time little boys were in bed. Buddy always wanted to know what they said after he had climbed into the big wagon where mother had made a bed, but he never found out. He could remember lying there listening sometimes to the niggers singing at their own campfire within call, Ezra always singing the loudest,—just as a bull always could be heard above the bellowing of the herd.
All his life, Ezra's singing and the monotonous bellowing of a herd reminded Buddy of one mysteriously terrible time when there weren't any rivers or any ponds or anything along the trail, and they had to be careful of the water and save it, and he and Dulcie were not asked to wash their faces. I think that miracle helped to fix the incident indelibly in Buddy's mind; that, and the bellowing of the cattle. It seemed a month to Buddy, but as he grew older he learned that it was three days they went without water.
The first day he did not remember especially, except that mother had talked about clean aprons that night, and failed to produce any. The second he recalled quite clearly. Father came to the wagons sometime in the night to see if mother was asleep. Their murmured talk wakened Buddy and he heard father say:
"We'll hold 'em, all right, Lassie. And there's water ahead. It's marked on the trail map. Don't you worry—I'll stay up and help the boys. The cattle are uneasy—but we'll hold 'em."
The third day Buddy never forgot. That was the day when mother forgot that Q stands for Quagga, and permitted Buddy to call it P, just for fun, because it looked so much like P. And when he said "W is water ", mother made a funny sound and said right out loud, "Oh God, please!" and told Buddy to creep back and play with Sister—when Sister was asleep, and there were still x, y and z to say, let alone that mysterious And-so-forth which seemed to mean so much and so little and never was called upon to help spell a word. Never since he began to have lessons had mother omitted a single letter or cut the study hour down the teeniest little bit.
Buddy was afraid of something, but he could not think what it was that frightened him. He began to think seriously about water, and to listen uneasily to the constant lowing of the herd. The increased shouting of the niggers driving the lagging ones held a sudden significance. It occurred to him that the niggers had their hands full, and that they had never driven so big a "Drag." It was hotter than ever, too, and they had twice stopped to yoke in fresh oxen. Ezra had boasted all along that ole Bawley would keep his end up till they got clah to Wyoming. But ole Bawley had stopped, and stopped, and at last had to be taken out of the yoke. Buddy began to wish they would hurry up and find a river.
None of the cowboys would take him on the saddle and let him ride, that day. They looked harassed—Buddy called it cross—when they rode up to the wagon to give their horses a few mouthfuls of water from the barrel. Step-and-a-Half couldn't spare any more, they told mother. He had declared at noon that he needed every drop he had for the cooking, and there would be no washing of dishes whatever. Later, mother had studied a map and afterwards had sat for a long while staring out over the backs of the cattle, her face white. Buddy thought perhaps mother was sick.
That day lasted hours and hours longer than any other day that Buddy could remember. His father looked cross, too, when he rode back to them. Once it was to look at the map which mother had studied. They talked together afterwards, and Buddy heard his father say that she must not worry; the cattle had good bottom, and could stand thirst better than a poor herd, and another dry camp would not really hurt anyone.
He had uncovered the water barrel and looked in, and had ridden straight over to the chuck-wagon, his horse walking alongside the high seat where Step-and-a-Half sat perched listlessly with a long-lashed oxwhip in his hand. Father had talked for a few minutes, and had ridden back scowling.
"That old scoundrel has got two ten-gallon kegs that haven't been touched!" he told mother. "Yo' all mustn't water any more horses out of your barrel Send the boys to Step-and-a-Half. Yo' all keep what you've got. The horses have got to have water—to-night it's going to be hell to hold the herd, and if anybody goes thirsty it'll be the men, not the horses But yo' all send them to the other wagon, Lassie Mind, now! Not a drop to anyone."
After father rode away, Buddy crept up and put his two short arms around mother. "Don't cry. I don't have to drink any water," he soothed her. He waited a minute and added optimistically, "Dere's a BI—IG wiver comin' pitty soon. Oxes smells water a hunerd miles. Ezra says so. An' las' night Crumpy was snuffin' an' snuffin'. I saw 'im do it. He smelt a BIG wiver. THAT bi-ig!" He spread his short arms as wide apart as they would reach, and smiled tremulously.
Mother squeezed Buddy so hard that he grunted.
"Dear little man, of course there is. WE don't mind, do we? I-was feeling sorry for the poor cattle."
"De're firsty," Buddy stated solemnly, his eyes big. "De're bawlin' fer a drink of water. I guess de're AWFUL firsty. Dere's a big wiver comin' now Crumpy smelt a big wiver."
Buddy's mother stared across the arid plain parched into greater barrenness by the heat that had been unremitting for the past week. Buddy's faith in the big river she could not share. Somehow they had drifted off the trail marked on the map drawn by George Williams.
Williams had warned them to carry as much water as possible in barrels, as a precaution against suffering if they failed to strike water each night. He had told them that water was scarce, but that his cowboy scouts and the deep-worn buffalo trails had been able to bring him through with water at every camp save two or three. The Staked Plains, he said, would be the hardest drive. And this was the Staked Plains—and it was hard driving!
Buddy did not know all that until afterwards, when he heard father talk of the drive north. But he would have remembered that day and the night that followed, even though he had never heard a word about it. The bawling of the herd became a doleful chant of misery. Even the phlegmatic oxen that drew the wagons bawled and slavered while they strained forward, twisting their heads under the heavy yokes. They stopped oftener than usual to rest, and when Buddy was permitted to walk with the perspiring Ezra by the leaders, he wondered why the oxen's eyes were red, like Dulcie's when she had one of her crying spells.
At night the cowboys did not tie their horses and sit down while they ate, but stood by their mounts and bolted food hurriedly, one eye always on the restless cattle, that walked around and around, and would neither eat nor lie down, but lowed incessantly. Once a few animals came close enough to smell the water in a bucket where Frank Davis was watering his sweat-streaked horse, and Step-and-a-Half's wagon was almost upset before the maddened cattle could be driven back to the main herd.
"No use camping," Bob Birnie told the boys gathered around Step-and-a-Half's Dutch ovens. "The cattle won't stand. We'll wear ourselves and them out trying to hold 'em-they may as well be hunting water as running in circles. Step-and-a-Half, keep your cooked grub handy for the boys, and yo' all pack up and pull out. We'll turn the cattle loose and follow. If there's any water in this damned country they'll find it."
Years afterwards, Buddy learned that his father had sent men out to hunt water, and that they had not found any. He was ten when this was discussed around a spring roundup fire, and he had studied the matter for a few minutes and then had spoken boldly his mind.
"You oughta kept your horses as thirsty as the cattle was, and I bet they'd a' found that water," he criticized, and was sent to bed for his tactlessness. Bob Birnie himself had thought of that afterwards, and had excused the oversight by saying that he had depended on the map, and had not foreseen a three-day dry drive.
However that may be, that night was a night of panicky desperation. Ezra walked beside the oxen and shouted and swung his lash, and the oxen strained forward bellowing so that not even Dulcie could sleep, but whimpered fretfully in her mother's arms. Buddy sat up wide-eyed and watched for the big river, and tried not to be a 'fraid-cat and cry like Dulcie.
It was long past starry midnight when a little wind puffed out of the darkness and the oxen threw up their heads and sniffed, and put a new note into their "M-baw-aw-aw-mm!" They swung sharply so that the wind blew straight into the front of the wagon, which lurched forward with a new impetus.
"Glo-ory t' Gawd, Missy! dey smells watah, sho 's yo' bawn!" sobbed Ezra as he broke into a trot beside the wheelers. "'Tain't fur—lookit dat-ah huhd a-goin' it! No 'm, Missy, DEY ain't woah out—dey smellin' watah an' dey'm gittin' TO it! 'Tain't fur, Missy."
Buddy clung to the back of the seat and stared round-eyed into the gloom. He never forgot that lumpy shadow which was the herd, traveling fast in dust that obscured the nearest stars. The shadow humped here and there as the cattle crowded forward at a shuffling half trot, the click—awash of their shambling feet treading close on one another. The rapping tattoo of wide-spread horns clashing against wide-spread horns filled him with a formless terror, so that he let go the seat to clutch at mother's dress. He was not afraid of cattle-they were as much a part of his world as were Ezra and the wagon and the camp-fires-but he trembled with the dread which no man could name for him.
These were not the normal, everyday sounds of the herd. The herd had somehow changed from plodding animals to one overwhelming purpose that would sweep away anything that came in its path. Two thousand parched throats and dust-dry tongues-and suddenly the smell of water that would go gurgling down two thousand eager gullets, and every intervening second a cursed delay against which the cattle surged blindly. It was the mob spirit, when the mob was fighting for its very existence.
Over the bellowing of the cattle a yelling cowboy now and then made himself heard. The four oxen straining under their yokes broke into a lumbering gallop lest they be outdistanced by the herd, and Dulcie screamed when the wagon lurched across a dry wash and almost upset, while Ezra plied the ox-whip and yelled frantically at first one ox and then another, inventing names for the new ones. Buddy drew in his breath and held it until the wagon rolled on four wheels instead of two, but he did not scream.
Still the big river did not come. It seemed to Buddy that the cattle would never stop running. Tangled in the terror was Ezra's shouting as he ran alongside the wagon and called to Missy that it was "Dat ole Crumpy actin' the fool", and that the wagon wouldn't upset. "No'm, dey's jest in a hurry to git dere fool haids sunk to de eyes in dat watah. Dey ain't aimin' to run away—no'm, dish yer ain't no stampede!"
Perhaps Buddy dozed. The next thing he remembered, day was breaking, with the sun all red, seen through the dust. The herd was still going, but now it was running and somehow the yoked oxen were keeping close behind, lumbering along with heads held low and the sweat reeking from their spent bodies. Buddy heard dimly his mother's sharp command to Ezra:
"Stand back, Ezra! We're not going to be caught in that terrible trap. They're piling over the bank ahead of us. Get away from the leaders. I am going to shoot."
Buddy crawled up a little higher on the blankets behind the seat, and saw mother steady herself and aim the rifle straight at Crumpy. There was the familiar, deafening roar, the acrid smell of black powder smoke, and Crumpy went down loosely, his nose rooting the trampled ground for a space before the gun belched black smoke again and Crumpy's yoke-mate pitched forward. The wagon stopped so abruptly that Buddy sprawled helplessly on his back like an overturned beetle.
He saw mother stand looking down at the wheelers, that backed and twisted their necks under their yokes. Her lips were set firmly together, and her eyes were bright with purple hollows beneath. She held the rifle for a moment, then set the butt of it on the "jockey box" just in front of the dashboard. The wheelers, helpless between the weight of the wagon behind and the dead oxen in front, might twist their necks off but they could do no damage.
"Unyoke the wheelers, Ezra, and let the poor creatures have their chance at the water," she cried sharply, and Ezra, dodging the horns of the frantic brutes, made shift to obey.
Fairly on the bank of the sluggish stream with its flood-worn channel and its treacherous patches of quicksand, the wagon thus halted by the sheer nerve and quick-thinking of mother became a very small island in a troubled sea of weltering backs and tossing horns and staring eyeballs. Riders shouted and lashed unavailingly with their quirts, trying to hold back the full bulk of the herd until the foremost had slaked their thirst and gone on. But the herd was crazy for the water, and the foremost were plunged headlong into the soft mud where they mired, trampled under the hoofs of those who came crowding from behind.
Someone shouted, close to the wagon yet down the bank at the edge of the water. The words were indistinguishable, but a warning was in the voice. On the echo of that cry, a man screamed twice.
"Ezra!" cried mother fiercely. "It's Frank Davis—they've got him down, somehow. Climb over the backs of the cattle—There's no other way—and GET HIM!"
"Yas'm, Missy!" Ezra called back, and then Buddy saw him go over the herd, scrambling, jumping from back to back.
Buddy remembered that always, and the funeral they had later in the day, when the herd was again just trail-weary cattle feeding hungrily on the scanty grass. Down at the edge of the creek the carcasses of many dead animals lay half-buried in the mud. Up on a little knoll where a few stunted trees grew, the negroes dug a long, deep hole. Mother's eyes were often filled with tears that day, and the cowboys scarcely talked at all when they gathered at the chuckwagon.
After a while they all went to the hole which the negroes had dug, and there was a long Something wrapped up in canvas. Mother wore her best dress which was black, and father and all the boys had shaved their faces and looked very sober. The negroes stood back in a group by themselves, and every few minutes Buddy saw them draw their tattered shirtsleeves across their faces. And father—Buddy looked once and saw two tears running down father's cheeks. Buddy was shocked into a stony calm. He had never dreamed that fathers ever cried.
Mother read out of her Bible, and all the boys held their hats in front of them, with their hands clasped, and looked at the ground while she read. Then mother sang. She sang, "We shall meet beyond the river", which Buddy thought was a very queer song, because they were all there but Frank Davis; then she sang "Nearer, My God, to Thee." Buddy sang too, piping the notes accurately, with a vague pronunciation of the words and a feeling that somehow he was helping mother.
After that they put the long, canvas-wrapped Something down in the hole, and mother said "Our Father Who Art in Heaven ", with Buddy repeating it uncertainly after her and pausing to say "TRETHpatheth" very carefully. Then mother picked up Dulcie in her arms, took Buddy by the hand and walked slowly back to the wagon, and would not let him turn to see what the boys were doing.
It was from that day that Buddy missed Frank Davis, who had mysteriously gone to Heaven, according to mother. Buddy's interest in Heaven was extremely keen for a time, and he asked questions which not even mother could answer. Then his memory of Frank Davis blurred. But never his memory of that terrible time when the Tomahawk outfit lost five hundred cattle in the dry drive and the stampede for water.
CHAPTER THREE: SOME INDIAN LORE
Buddy knew Indians as he knew cattle, horses, rattlesnakes and storms—by having them mixed in with his everyday life. He couldn't tell you where or when he had learned that Indians are tricky. Perhaps his first ideas on that subject were gleaned from the friendly tribes who lived along the Chisolm Trail and used to visit the chuck-wagon, their blankets held close around them and their eyes glancing everywhere while they grinned and talked and pointed—and ate. Buddy used to sit in the chuck-wagon, out of harm's way, and watch them eat.
Step-and-a-Half had a way of entertaining Indians which never failed to interest Buddy, however often he witnessed it. When Step-and-a-Half glimpsed Indians coming afar off, he would take his dishpan and dump into it whatever scraps of food were left over from the preceding meal. He used to say that Indians could smell grub as far as a buzzard can smell a dead carcase, and Buddy believed it, for they always arrived at meal time or shortly afterwards. Step-and-a-Half would make a stew, if there were scraps enough. If the gleanings were small, he would use the dishwater—he was a frugal man—and with that for the start-off he would make soup, which the Indians gulped down with great relish and many gurgly sounds.
Buddy watched them eat what he called pig-dinner. When Step-and-a-Half was not looking he saw them steal whatever their dirty brown hands could readily snatch and hide under their blankets. So he knew from very early experience that Indians were not to be trusted.
Once, when he had again strayed too far from camp, some Indians riding that way saw him, and one leaned and lifted him from the ground and rode off with him. Buddy did not struggle much. He saved his breath for the long, shrill yell of cow-country. Twice he yodled before the Indian clapped a hand over his mouth.
Father and some of the cowboys heard and came after, riding hard and shooting as they came. Buddy's pink apron fluttered a signal flag in the arms of his captor, and so it happened that the bullets whistled close to that particular Indian. He gathered a handful of calico between Buddy's shoulders, held him aloft like a puppy, leaned far over and deposited him on the ground.
Buddy rolled over twice and got up, a little dizzy and very indignant, and shouted to father, "Shoot a sunsyguns!"
From that time Buddy added hatred to his distrust of Indians.
From the time when he was four until he was thirteen Buddy's life contained enough thrills to keep a movie-mad boy of to-day sitting on the edge of his seat gasping enviously through many a reel, but to Buddy it was all rather humdrum and monotonous.
What he wanted to do was to get out and hunt buffalo. Just herding horses, and watching out for Indians, and killing rattlesnakes was what any boy in the country would be doing. Still, Buddy himself achieved now and then a thrill.
There was one day, when he stood heedlessly on a ridge looking for a dozen head of lost horses in the draws below. It was all very well to explain missing horses by the conjecture that the Injuns must have got them, but Buddy happened to miss old Rattler with the others. Rattler had come north with the trail herd, and he was wise beyond the wisdom of most horses. He would drive cattle out of the brush without a rider to guide him, if only you put a saddle on him. He had helped Buddy to mount his back—when Buddy was much smaller than now—by lowering his head until Buddy straddled it, and then lifting it so that Buddy slid down his neck and over his withers to his back. Even now Buddy sometimes mounted that way when no one was looking. Many other lovable traits had Rattler, and to lose him would be a tragedy to the family.
So Buddy was on the ridge, scanning all the deep little washes and draws, when a bullet PING-G-GED over his head. Buddy caught the bridle reins and pulled his horse into the shelter of rocks, untied his rifle from the saddle and crept back to reconnoitre. It was the first time he had ever been shot at—except in the army posts, when the Indians had "broken out",—and the aim then was generally directed toward his vicinity rather than his person.
An Indian on a horse presently appeared cautiously from cover, and Buddy, trembling with excitement, shot wild; but not so wild that the Indian could afford to scoff and ride closer. After another ineffectual shot at Buddy, he whipped his horse down the ridge, and made for Bannock creek.
Buddy at thirteen knew more of the wiles of Indians than does the hardiest Indian fighter on the screen to-day. Father had warned him never to chase an Indian into cover, where others would probably be waiting for him. So he stayed where he was, pretty well hidden in the rocks, and let the bullets he himself had "run" in father's bullet-mold follow the enemy to the fringe of bushes. His last shot knocked the Indian off his horse—or so it looked to Buddy. He waited for a long time, watching the brush and thinking what a fool that Indian was to imagine Buddy would follow him down there. After a while he saw the Indian's horse climbing the slope across the creek. There was no rider.
Buddy rode home without the missing horses, and did not tell anyone about the Indian, though his thoughts would not leave the subject.
He wondered what mother would think of it. Mother's interests seemed mostly confined to teaching Buddy and Dulcie what they were deprived of learning in schools, and to play the piano—a wonderful old square piano that had come all the way from Scotland to the Tomahawk ranch, the very frontier of the West.
Mother was a wonderful woman, with a soft voice and a slight Scotch accent, and wit; and a knowledge of things which were little known in the wilderness. Buddy never dreamed then how strangely culture was mixed with pure savagery in his life. To him the secret regret that he had not dared ride into the bushes to scalp the Indian he believed he had shot, and the fact that his hands were straining at the full chords of the ANVIL CHORUS on that very evening, was not even to be considered unusual. Still, certain strains of that classic were always afterward associated in his mind with the shooting of the Indian—if he had really shot him.
While he counted the time with a conscientious regard for the rests, he debated the wisdom of telling mother, and decided that perhaps he had better keep that matter to himself, like a man.
CHAPTER FOUR: BUDDY GIVES WARNING
Buddy swung down from his horse, unsaddled it and went staggering to the stable wall with the burden of a stock-saddle much too big for him. He had to stand on his boot-toes to reach and pull the bridle down over the ears of Whitefoot, which turned with an air of immense relief into the corral gate and the hay piled at the further end. Buddy gave him one preoccupied glance and started for the cabin, walking with the cowpuncher's peculiar, bowlegged gait which comes of wearing chaps and throwing out the knees to overcome the stiffness of the leather. At thirteen Buddy was a cowboy from hat-crown to spurs-and at thirteen Buddy gloried in the fact. To-day, however, his mind was weighted with matters of more importance than himself.
"The Utes are having a war-dance, mother," he announced when he had closed the stout door of the kitchen behind him. "They mean it this time. I lay in the brush and watched them last night." He stood looking at his mother speculatively, a little grin on his face. "I told you, you can't change an Injun by learning him to eat with a knife and fork," he added. "Colorou ain't any whiter than he was before you set out to learn him manners. He was hoppin' higher than any of 'em."
"Teach, Buddy, not learn. You know better than to say 'learn him manners.'"
"Teach him manners," Buddy corrected himself obediently. "I was thinking more about what I saw than about grammar. Where's father? I guess I'd better tell him. He'll want to get the stock out of the mountains, I should think."
"Colorou will send me word before they take the warpath," mother observed reassuringly. "He always has. I gave him a whole pound of tea and a blue ribbon the last time he was here."
"Yes, and the last time they broke out they got away with more 'n a hundred head of cattle. You got to Laramie, all right, but he didn't tell father in time to make a roundup back in the foothills. They're DANCING, mother!"
"Well, I suppose We're due for an outbreak," sighed mother. "Colorou says he can't hold his young men off when some of the tribe have been killed. He himself doesn't countenance the stealing and the occasional killing of white men. There are bad Indians and good ones."
"I know a couple of good ones," Buddy murmured as he made for the wash basin. "It's the bad ones that were doing the dancing, mother," he flung over his shoulder. "And if I was you I'd take Dulcie and the cats and hit for Laramie. Colorou might get busy and forget to send word!"
"If I WAS you?" Mother came up and nipped his ear between thumb and finger. "Robert, I am discouraged over you. All that I teach you in the winter seems to evaporate from your mind during the summer when you go out riding with the boys."
Buddy wiped his face with an up-and-down motion on the roller towel and clanked across to the cupboard which he opened investigatively. "Any pie?" he questioned as he peered into the corners. "Say, if I had the handling of those Utes, mother, I'd fix 'em so they wouldn't be breaking out every few months and making folks leave their homes to be pawed over and burnt, maybe." He found a jar of fresh doughnuts and took three.
"They'll tromp around on your flower-beds—it just makes me SICK when I think how they'll muss things up around here! I wish now," He blurted unthinkingly, "that I hadn't killed the Injun that stole Rattler."
"Buddy! Not YOU." His mother made a swift little run across the kitchen and caught him on his lean, hard-muscled young shoulders. "You—you baby! What did you do? You didn't harm an Indian, did you, laddie?"
Buddy tilted his head downward so that she could not look into his eyes. "I dunno as I harmed him—much," he said, wiping doughnut crumbs from his mouth with one hasty sweep of his forearm. "But his horse came outa the brush, and he never. I guess I killed him, all right. Anyway, mother, I had to. He took a shot at me first. It was the day we lost Rattler and the bronks," He added accurately.
Mother did not say anything for a minute, and Buddy hung his head lower, dreading to see the hurt look which he felt was in her eyes.
"I have to pack a gun when I ride anywhere," he reminded her defensively. "It ain't to balance me on the horse, either. If Injuns take in after me, the gun's so I can shoot. And a feller don't shoot up in the air—and if an Injun is hunting trouble he oughta expect that maybe he might get shot sometime. You—you wouldn't want me to just run and let them catch me, would you?"
Mother's hand slipped up to his head and pressed it against her breast so that Buddy heard her heart beating steady and sweet and true. Mother wasn't afraid—never, never!
"I know—it's the dreadful necessity of defending our lives. But you're so young—just mother's baby man!"
Buddy looked up at her then, a laugh twinkling in his eyes. After all, mother understood.
"I'm going to be your baby man always if you want me to, mother," He whispered, closing his arms around her neck in a sturdy hug. "But I'm father's horse-wrangler, too. And a horse-wrangler has got to hold up his end. I—I didn't want to kill anybody, honest. But Injuns are different. You kill rattlers, and they ain't as mean as Injuns. That one I shot at was shooting at me before I even so much as knew there was one around. I just shot back. Father would, or anybody else."
"I know—I know," she conceded, the tender womanliness of her sighing over the need. In the next moment she was all mother, ready to fight for her young. "Buddy, never, never ride ANYWHERE without your rifle! And a revolver, too—be sure that it is in perfect condition. And—have you a knife? You're so LITTLE!" she wailed. "But father will need you, and he'll take care of you—and Colorou would not let you be hurt if he knew. But—Buddy, you must be careful, and always watching—never let them catch you off your guard. I shall be in Laramie before you and father and the boys, I suppose, if the Indians really do break out. And you must promise me—"
"I'll promise, mother. And don't you go and trust old Colorou an inch. He was jumping higher than any of 'em, and shaking his tomahawk and yelling—he'd have scalped me right there if he'd seen me watching 'em. Mother, I'm going to find father and tell him. And you may as well be packing up, and—don't leave my guitar for them to smash, will you, mother?"
His mother laughed then and pushed him toward the door. She had an idea of her own and she did not want to be hindered now in putting it into action. Up the creek, in the bank behind a clump of willows, was a small cave—or a large niche, one might call it—where many household treasures might be safely hidden, if one went carefully, wading in the creek to hide the tracks. She followed Buddy out, and called to Ezra who was chopping wood with a grunt for every fall of the axe and many rest—periods in the shade of the cottonwood tree.
At the stable, Buddy looked back and saw her talking earnestly to Ezra, who stood nodding his head in complete approval. Buddy's knowledge of women began and ended with his mother. Therefore, to him all women were wonderful creatures whom men worshipped ardently because they were created for the adoration of lesser souls. Buddy did not know what his mother was going to do, but he was sure that whatever she did would be right; so he hoisted his saddle on the handiest fresh horse, and loped off to drive in the remuda, feeling certain that his father would move swiftly to save his cattle that ranged back in the foothills, and that the saddle horses would be wanted at a moment's notice.
Also, he reasoned, the range horses (mares and colts and the unbroken geldings) would not be left to the mercy of the Indians. He did not quite know how his father would manage it, but he decided that he would corral the REMUDA first, and then drive in the other horses, that fed scattered in undisturbed possession of a favorite grassy creek-bottom farther up the Platte.
The saddle horses, accustomed to Buddy's driving, were easily corralled. The other horses were fat and "sassy" and resented his coming among them with the shrill whoop of authority. They gave him a hot hour's riding before they finally bunched and went tearing down the river bottom toward the ranch. Even so, Buddy left two of the wildest careening up a narrow gulch. He had not attempted to ride after them; not because he was afraid of Indians, for he was not. The war-dance held every young buck and every old one in camp beyond the Pass. But the margin of safety might be narrow, and Buddy was taking no chances that day.
When he was convinced that it was impossible for one boy to be in half a dozen places at once, and that the cowboys would be needed to corral the range bunch, Buddy whooped them all down the creek below the home ranch and let them go just as his father came riding up to the corral.
"They're war-dancing, father," Buddy shouted eagerly, slipping off his horse and wiping away the trickles of perspiration with a handkerchief not much redder than his face. "I drove all the horses down, so they'd be handy. Them range horses are pretty wild. There was two I couldn't get. What'll I do now?"
Bob Birnie looked at his youngest rider and smoothed his beard with one hand. "You're an ambitious lad, Buddy. It's the Utes you're meaning—or is it the horses?"
Buddy lifted his head and stared at his father disapprovingly.
"Colorou is going to break out. I know. They've got their war paint all on and they're dancing. I saw them myself. I was going after the gloves Colorou s squaw was making for me,—but I didn't get 'em. I laid in the brush and watched 'em dance." He stopped and looked again doubtfully at his father. "I thought you might want to get the cattle outa the way," he added. "I thought I could save some time—"
"You're sure about the paint?"
"Yes, I'm sure. And Colorou was just a-going it with his war bonnet on and shaking his tomahawk and yelling—"
"Ye did well, lad. We'll be leaving for Big Creek to-night, so run away now and rest yourself."
"Oh, and can I go?" Buddy's voice was shrill with eagerness.
"I'll need you, lad, to look after the horses. It will give me one more hand with the cattle. Now go tell Step-and-a-Half to make ready for a week on the trail, and to have supper early so he can make his start with the rest."
Buddy walked stiffly away to the cook's cabin where Step-and-a-Half sat leisurely gouging the worst blemishes out of soft, old potatoes with a chronic tendency to grow sprouts, before he peeled them for supper His crippled leg was thrust out straight, his hat was perched precariously over one ear because of the slanting sun rays through the window, and a half-smoked cigarette waggled uncertainly in the corner of his mouth while he sang dolefully a most optimistic ditty of the West:
"O give me a home where the buff-alo roam, Where the deer and the antelope play, Where never is heard a discouraging word And the sky is not cloudy all day."
"You're going to hear a discouraging word right now," Buddy broke in ruthlessly upon the song. Whereupon, with a bit of importance in his voice and in his manner, he proceeded to spoil Step-and-a-Half's disposition and to deepen, if that were possible, his loathing of Indians. Too often had he made dubious soup of his dishwater and the leavings from a roundup crew's dinner, and watched blanketed bucks smack lips over the mess, to run from them now without feeling utterly disgusted with life. Step-and-a-Half's vituperations could be heard above the clatter of pots and pans as he made ready for the journey.
That night's ride up the pass through the narrow range of high-peaked hills to the Tomahawk's farthest range on Big Creek was a tedious affair to Buddy. A man had been sent on a fast horse to warn the nearest neighbor, who in turn would warn the next,—until no settler would be left in ignorance of his danger. Ezra was already on the trail to Laramie, with mother and Dulcie and the cats and a slat box full of chickens, and a young sow with little pigs.
Buddy, whose word no one had questioned, who might pardonably have considered himself a hero, was concerned chiefly with his mother's flower garden which he had helped to plant and had watered more or less faithfully with creek water carried in buckets. He was afraid the Indians would step on the poppies and the phlox, and trample down the four o'clocks which were just beginning to branch out and look nice and bushy, and to blossom. The scent of the four o'clocks had been in his nostrils when he came out at dusk with his fur overcoat which mother had told him must not be left behind. Buddy himself merely liked flowers: but mother talked to them and kissed them just for love, and pitied them if Buddy forgot and let them go thirsty. He would have stayed to fight for mother's flower garden, if it would have done any good.
He was thinking sleepily that next year he would plant flowers in boxes that could be carried to the cave if the Indians broke out again, when Tex Farley poked him in the ribs and told him to wake up or he'd fall off his horse. It was a weary climb to the top of the range that divided the valley of Big Creek from the North Platte, and a wearier climb down. Twice Buddy caught himself on the verge of toppling out of the saddle. For after all he was only a thirteen-year Old boy, growing like any other healthy young animal. He had been riding hard that day and half of the preceding night when he had raced back from the Reservation to give warning of the impending outbreak. He needed sleep, and nature was determined that he should have it.
CHAPTER FIVE: BUDDY RUNS TRUE TO TYPE
One never could predict with any certainty how long Indians would dance before they actually took the trail of murder and pillage. So much depended upon the Medicine, so much on signs and portents. It was even possible that they might, for some mysterious reason unknown to their white neighbors, decide at the last moment to bide their time. The Tomahawk outfit worked from dawn until dark, and combed the foothills of the Snowies hurriedly, riding into the most frequented, grassy basins and wide canyons where the grass was lush and sweet and the mountain streams rushed noisily over rocks. As fast as the cattle were gathered they were pushed hastily toward the Platte, And though the men rode warily with rifles as handy as their ropes, they rode in peace.
Buddy, proud of his job, counting himself as good a man as any of them, became a small riding demon after rebellious saddle horses, herding them away from thick undergrowth that might, for all he knew, hold Indians waiting a chance to scalp him, driving the REMUDA close to the cabins when night fell, because no man could be spared for night herding, sleeping lightly as a cat beside a mouse hole. He did not say much, perhaps because everyone was too busy to talk, himself included.
Men rode in at night dog-weary, pulled their saddles and hurried stiffly to the cabin where Step-and-a-Half was showing his true worth as a cook who could keep the coffee-pot boiling and yet be ready to pack up and go at the first rifle-shot. They would bolt down enormous quantities of bannock and boiled beef, swallow their coffee hot enough to scald a hog, and stretch themselves out immediately to sleep.
Buddy would be up and on his horse in the clear starlight before dawn, with a cup of coffee swallowed to hearten him for the chilly ride after the remuda. Even with the warmth of the coffee his teeth would chatter just at first, and he would ride with his thin shoulders lifted and a hand in a pocket. He could not sing or whistle to keep himself company. He must ride in silence until he had counted every dark, moving shape and knew that the herd was complete, then ease them quietly to camp.
On the fourth morning he rode anxiously up the valley, fearing that the horses had been stolen in the night, yet hoping they had merely strayed up the creek to find fresh pastures. A light breeze that carried the keen edge of frost made his nose tingle. His horse trotted steadily forward, as keen on the trail as Buddy himself; keener, for he would be sure to give warning of danger. So they rounded a bend in the creek and came upon the scattered fringe of the remuda cropping steadily at the meadow grass there.
Bud circled them, glancing now and then at the ridge beyond the valley. It seemed somehow unnatural—lower, with the stars showing along its wooded crest in a row, as if there were no peaks. Then quite suddenly he knew that the ridge was the same, and that the stars he saw were little, breakfast camp-fires. His heart gave a jump when he realized how many little fires there were, and knew that the dance was over. The Indians had left the reservation and had crossed the ridge yesterday, and had camped there to wait for the dawn.
While he gathered his horses together he guessed how old Colorou had planned to catch the Tomahawk riders when they left camp and scattered, two by two, on "Circle." He had held his band well out of sight and sound of the Big Creek cabin, and if the horses had not strayed up the creek in the night he would have caught the white men off their guard.
Buddy looked often over his shoulder while he drove the horses down the creek. It seemed stranger than luck, that he had been compelled to ride so far on this particular morning; as if mother's steadfast faith in prayer and the guardianship of angels was justified by actual facts. Still, Buddy was too hard-headed to assume easily that angels had driven the horses up the creek so that he would have to ride up there and discover the Indian fires. If angels could do that, why hadn't they stopped Colorou from going on the warpath? It would have been simpler, in Buddy's opinion.
He did not mention the angel problem to his father, however. Bob Birnie was eating breakfast with his men when Buddy rode up to the cabin and told the news. The boys did not say anything much, but they may have taken bigger bites by way of filling their stomachs in less time than usual.
"I'll go see for myself," said Bob Birnie. "You boys saddle up and be ready to start. If it's Indians, we'll head for Laramie and drive everything before us as we go. But the lad may be wrong." He took the reins from Buddy, mounted, and rode away, his booted feet hanging far below Buddy's short stirrups.
Speedily he was back, and the scowl on his face told plainly enough that Buddy had not been mistaken.
"They're coming off the ridge already," he announced grimly. "I heard their horses among the rocks up there. They think to come down on us at sunrise. There'll be too many for us to hold off, I'm thinking. Get ye a fresh horse, Buddy, and drive the horses down the creek fast as ye can."
Buddy uncoiled his rope and ran with his mouth full to do as he was told. He did not think he was scared, exactly, but he made three throws to get the horse he wanted, blaming the poor light for his ill luck; and then found himself in possession of a tall, uneasy brown that Dick Grimes had broken and sometimes rode. Buddy would have turned him loose and caught another, but the horses had sensed the suppressed excitement of the men and were circling and snorting in the half light of dawn; so Buddy led out the brown, pulled the saddle from the sweaty horse that had twice made the trip up the creek, and heaved it hastily on the brown's back. Dick Grimes called to him, to know if he wanted any help, and Buddy yelled, "No!"
"Here they come—damn 'em—turn the bunch loose and ride!" called Bob Birnie as a shrill, yelling war-whoop, like the yapping of many coyotes, sounded from the cottonwoods that bordered the creek. "Yuh all right, Buddy?"
"Yeah—I'm a-comin'," shrilled Buddy, hastily looping the latigo. Just then the sharp staccato of rifle-shots mingled with the whooping of the Indians. Buddy was reaching for the saddle horn when the brown horse ducked and jerked loose. Before Buddy realized what was happening the brown horse, the herd and all the riders were pounding away down the valley, the men firing back at the cottonwoods.
In the dust and clamor of their departure Buddy stood perfectly still for a minute, trying to grasp the full significance of his calamity. Step-and-a-Half had packed hastily and departed ahead of them all. His father and the cowboys were watching the cottonwood grove many rods to Buddy's right and well in the background, and they would not glance his way. Even if they did they would not see him, and if they saw him it would be madness to ride back—though there was not a man among them who would not have wheeled in his tracks and returned for Buddy in the very face of Colorou and his band.
From the cottonwoods came the pound of galloping hoofs. "Angels NOTHING!" Cried Buddy in deep disgust and scuttled for the cabin.
The cabin, he knew as he ran, was just then the worst place in the world for a boy who wanted very much to go on living. Through its gaping doorway he saw a few odds and ends of food lying on the table, but he dared not stop long enough to get them. The Indians were thundering down to the corral, and as he rounded the cabin's corner he glanced back and saw the foremost riders whipping their horses on the trail of the fleeing white men. But some, he knew, would stop. Even the prospect of fresh scalps could not hold the greedy ones from prowling around a white man's dwelling place. There might be tobacco or whiskey left behind, or something with color or a shine to it. Buddy knew well the ways of Indians.
He made for the creek, thinking at first to hide somewhere in the brush along the bank. Then, fearing the brightening light of day and the wide space he must cross to reach the first fringe of brush, he stopped at a dugout cellar that had been built into the creek bank above high-water mark. There was a pole-and-dirt roof, and because the dirt sifted down between the poles whenever the wind blew—which was always—the place had been crudely sealed inside with split poles overlapping one another. The ceiling was more or less flat; the roof had a slight slope. In the middle of the tiny attic thus formed Buddy managed to worm his body through a hole in the gable next to the creek.
He wriggled back to the end next the cabin and lay there very flat and very quiet, peeping out through a half-inch crack, too wise in the ways of silence to hold his breath until he must heave a sigh to relieve his lungs. It was hard to breathe naturally and easily after that swift dash, but somehow he did it. An Indian had swerved and ridden behind the cabin, and was leaning and peering in all directions to see if anyone had remained. Perhaps he suspected an ambush; Buddy was absolutely certain that the fellow was looking for him, personally, and that he had seen, Buddy run toward the creek.
It was not a pleasant thought, and the fact that he knew that buck Indian by name, and had once traded him a jackknife for a beautifully tanned wolf skin for his mother, did not make it pleasanter. Hides-the-face would not let past friendliness stand in the way of a killing.
Presently Hides-the-face dismounted and tied his horse to a corner log of the cabin, and went inside with the others to see what he could find that could be eaten or carried off. Buddy saw fresh smoke issue from the stone chimney, and guessed that Step-and-a-Half had left something that could be cooked. It became evident, in the course of an hour or so, that his presence was absolutely unsuspected, and Buddy began to watch them more composedly, silently promising especial forms of punishment to this one and that one whom he knew. Most of them had been to the ranch many times, and he could have called to a dozen of them by name. They had sat in his father's cabin or stood immobile just within the door, and had listened while his mother played and sang for them. She had fed them cakes—Buddy remembered the good things which mother had given these despicable ones who were looting and gobbling and destroying like a drove of hogs turned loose in a garden, and the thought of her wasted kindness turned him sick with rage. Mother had believed in their friendliness. Buddy wished that mother could see them setting fire to the low, log stable and the corral, and swarming in and out of the cabin.
Painted for war they were, with red stripes across their foreheads, ribs outlined in red which, when they loosened their blankets as the sun warmed them, gave them a fantastic likeness to the skeletons Buddy wished they were; red stripes on their arms, the number showing their rank in the tribe; open-seated, buckskin breeches to their knees where they met the tightly wrapped leggings; moccasins laced snugly at the ankle—they were picturesque enough to any eyes but Buddy's. He saw the ghoulish greed in their eyes, heard it in their voices when they shouted to one another; and he hated them even more than he feared them.
Much that they said he understood. They were cursing the Tomahawk outfit, chiefly because the men had not waited there to be surprised and killed. They cursed his father in particular, and were half sorry that they had not ridden on in pursuit with the others. They hoped no white man would ride alive to Laramie. It made cheerful listening to Buddy, flat on his stomach in the roof of the dugout!
After a while, when the cabin had been gutted of everything it contained save the crude table and benches, a few Indians brought burning brands from the stable and set it afire. They were very busy inside and out, making sure that the flames took hold properly. Then, when the dry logs began to blaze and flames licked the edges of the roof, they stood back and watched it.
Buddy saw Hides-the-face glance speculatively toward the dugout, and slipped his hand back where he could reach his six-shooter. He felt pretty certain that they meant to demolish the dugout next, and he knew exactly what he meant to do. He had heard men at the posts talk of "selling their lives dearly ", and that is what he intended to do.
He was not going to be in too much of a hurry; he would wait until they actually began on the dugout—and when they were on the bank within a few feet of him, and he saw that there was no getting away from death, he meant to shoot five Indians, and himself last of all.
Tentatively he felt of his temple where he meant to place the muzzle of the gun when there was just one bullet left. It was so nice and smooth—he wondered if God would really help him out, if he said Our Father with a pure heart and with faith, as his mother said one must pray. He was slightly doubtful of both conditions, when he came to think of it seriously. This spring he had felt grown-up enough to swear a little at the horses, sometimes—and he was not sure that shooting the Indian that time would not be counted a crime by God, who loved all His creatures. Mother always stuck to it that Injuns were God's creatures—which brought Buddy squarely against the incredible assumption that God must love them. He did not in the least mean to be irreverent, but when he watched those painted bucks his opinion of God changed slightly. He decided that he himself was neither pure nor full of faith, and that he would not pray just yet. He would let God go ahead and do as He pleased about it; except that Buddy would never let those Indians get him alive, no matter what God expected.
Hides-the-face walked over toward the dugout. Buddy crooked his left arm and laid the gun barrel across it to get a "dead rest" and leave nothing to chance. Hides-the-face stared at the dugout, moved to one side—and the muzzle of the gun followed, keeping its aim directly at the left edge of his breastbone as outlined with the red paint. Hides-the-face craned, stepped into the path down the bank and passed out of range. Buddy gritted his teeth malevolently and waited, his ears strained to catch and interpret the meaning of every soft sound made by Hides-the-face's moccasins.
Hides-the-face cautiously pushed open the door of the cellar and looked in, standing for interminable minutes, as is the leisurely way of Indians when there is no great need of haste. Ruddy cautiously lowered his face and peered down like a mouse from the thatch, but he could not handily bring his gun to bear upon Hides-the-face, who presently turned back and went up the path, his shoulder-muscles moving snakishly under his brown skin as he climbed the bank.
Hides-the-face returned to the others and announced that there was a place where they could camp. Buddy could not hear all that he said, and Hides-the-face had his back turned so that not all of his signs were intelligible; but he gathered that these particular Indians had chosen or had been ordered to wait here for three suns, and that the cellar appealed to Hides-the-face as a shelter in case it stormed.
Buddy did not know whether to rejoice at the news or to mourn. They would not destroy the dugout, so he need not shoot himself, which was of course a relief. Still, three suns meant three days and nights, and the prospect of lying there on his stomach, afraid to move for that length of time, almost amounted to the same thing in the end. He did not believe that he could hold out that long, though of course he would try pretty hard.
All that day Buddy lay watching through the crack, determined to take any chance that came his way. None came. The Indians loitered in the shade, and some slept. But always two or three remained awake; and although they sat apparently ready to doze off at any minute, Buddy knew them too well to hope for such good luck. Two Indians rode in toward evening dragging a calf that had been overlooked in the roundup; and having improvidently burned the cabin, the meat was cooked over the embers which still smouldered in places where knots in the logs made slow fuel.
Buddy watched them hungrily, wondering how long it took to starve.
When it was growing dark he tried to keep in mind the exact positions of the Indians, and to discover whether a guard would be placed over the camp, or whether they felt safe enough to sleep without a sentinel. Hides-the-face he had long ago decided was in charge of the party, and Hides-the-face was seemingly concerned only with gorging himself on the half-roasted meat. Buddy hoped he would choke himself, but Hides-the-face was very good at gulping half-chewed hunks and finished without disaster.
Then he grunted something to someone in the dark, and there was movement in the group. Buddy ground his growing "second" teeth together, clenched his fist and said "Damn it!" three times in a silent crescendo of rage because he could neither see nor hear what took place; and immediately he repented his profanity, remembering that God could hear him. In Buddy's opinion, you never could be sure about God; He bestowed mysterious mercies and strange punishments, and His ways were past finding out. Buddy tipped his palms together and repeated all the prayers his mother had taught him and then, with a flash of memory, finished with "Oh, God, please!" just as mother had done long ago on the dry drive. After that he meditated uncomfortably for a few minutes and added in a faint whisper, "Oh, shucks! You don't want to pay any attention to a fellow cussing a little when he's mad. I could easy make that up if you helped me out some way."
Buddy believed afterwards that God yielded to persuasion and decided to give him a chance. For not more than five minutes passed when a far-off murmur grew to an indefinable roar, and the wind whooped down off the Snowies so fiercely that even the dugout quivered a little and rattled dirt down on Buddy through the poles just over his head.
At first this seemed an unlucky circumstance, for the Indians came down into the dugout for shelter, and now Buddy was afraid to breathe in the quiet intervals between the gusts. Just below him he could hear the occasional mutters of laconic sentences and grunted answers as the bucks settled themselves for the night, and he had a short, panicky spell of fearing that the poles would give way beneath him and drop him in upon them.
After a while—it seemed hours to Buddy—the wind settled down to a steady gale. The Indians, so far as he could determine, were all asleep in the cellar. And Buddy, setting his teeth hard together, began to slide slowly backward toward the opening through which he had crawled into the roof. When he had crawled in he had not noticed the springiness of the poles, but now his imagination tormented him with the sensation of sagging and swaying. When his feet pushed through the opening he had to grit his teeth to hold himself steady. It seemed as if someone were reaching up in the dark to catch him by the legs and pull him out. Nothing happened, however, and after a little he inched backward until he hung with his elbows hooked desperately inside the opening, his head and shoulders within and protesting with every nerve against leaving the shelter.
Buddy said afterwards that he guessed he'd have hung there until daylight, only he was afraid it was about time to change guard, and somebody might catch him. But he said he was scared to let go and drop, because it must have been pretty crowded in the cellar, and he knew the door was open, and some buck might be roosting outside handy to be stepped on. But he knew he had to do something, because if he ever went to sleep up in that place he'd snore, maybe; and anyway, he said, he'd rather run himself to death than starve to death. So he dropped.
It was two days after that when Buddy shuffled into a mining camp on the ridge just north of Douglas Pass. He was still on his feet, but they dragged like an old man's. He had walked twenty-five miles in two nights, going carefully, in fear of Indians. The first five miles he had waded along the shore of the creek, he said, in case they might pick up his tracks at the dugout and try to follow him. He had hidden himself like a rabbit in the brush through the day, and he had not dared shoot any meat, wherefore he had not eaten anything.
"I ain't as hungry as I was at first," He grinned tremulously. "But I guess I better—eat. I don' want—to lose the—habit—" Then he went slack and a man swearing to hide his pity picked him up in his arms and carried him into the tent.
CHAPTER SIX: THE YOUNG EAGLE MUST FLY
"You're of age," said Bob Birnie, sucking hard at his pipe. "You've had your schooling as your mother wished that you should have it. You've got the music in your head and your fingers and your toes, and that's as your mother wished that you should have.
"Your mother would have you be all for music, and make tunes out of your own head. She tells me that you have made tunes and written them down on paper, and that there are those who would buy them and print copies to sell, with your name at the top of the page. I'll not say what I think of that—your mother is an angel among women, and she has taught you the things she loves herself.
"But my business is with the cattle, and I've had you out with me since you could climb on the back of a horse. I've watched you, with the rope and the irons and in the saddle and all. You've been in tight places that would try the mettle of a man grown—I mind the time ye escaped Colorou's band, and we thought ye dead 'til ye came to us in Laramie. You've showed that you're able to hold your own on the range, lad. Your mother's all for the music—but I leave it to you.
"Ten thousand dollars I'll give ye, if that's your wish, and you can go to Europe as she wishes and study and make tunes for others to play. Or if ye prefer it, I'll brand you a herd of she stock and let ye go your ways. No son of mine can take orders from his father after he's a man grown, and I'm not to the age where I can sit with the pipe from morning to night and let another run my outfit. I've talked it over with your mother, and she'll bide by your decision, as I shall do.
"So I put it in a nutshell, Robert. You're twenty-one to-day; a man grown, and husky as they're made. 'Tis time you faced the world and lived your life. You've been a good lad—as lads go." He stopped there to rub his jaw thoughtfully, perhaps remembering certain incidents in Buddy's full-flavored past. Buddy—grown to plain Bud among his fellows—turned red without losing the line of hardness that had come to his lips.
"You're of legal age to be called a man, and the future's before ye. I'll give ye five hundred cows with their calves beside them—you can choose them yourself, for you've a sharp eye for stock—and you can go where ye will. Or I'll give ye ten thousand dollars and ye can go to Europe and make tunes if you're a mind to. And whatever ye choose it'll be make or break with ye. Ye can sleep on the decision, for I've no wish that ye should choose hastily and be sorry after."
Buddy—grown to Bud—lifted a booted foot and laid it across his other knee and with his forefinger absently whirled the long-pointed rower on his spur. The hardness at his lips somehow spread to his eyes, that were bent on the whirring rower. It was the look that had come into the face of the baby down on the Staked Plains when Ezra called and called after he had been answered twice; the look that had held firm the lips of the boy who had lain very flat on his stomach in the roof of the dugout and had watched the Utes burning the cabin.
"There's no need to sleep on it," he said after a minute. "You've raised me, and spent some money on me—but I've saved you a man's wages ever since I was ten. If you think I've evened things up, all right. If you don't, make out your bill and I'll pay it when I can. There's no reason why you should give me anything I haven't earned, just because you're my father. You earned all you've got, and I guess I can do the same. As you say, I'm a man. I'll go at the future man fashion. And," he added with a slight flare of the nostrils, "I'll start in the morning."
"And is it to make tunes for other folks to play?" Bob Birnie asked after a silence, covertly eyeing him.
"No, sir. There's more money in cattle. I'll make my stake in the cow-country, same as you've done." He looked up and grinned a little. "To the devil with your money and your she-stock! I'll get out all right—but I'll make my own way."
"You're a stubborn fool, Robert. The Scotch now and then shows itself like that in a man. I got my start from my father and I'm not ashamed of it. A thousand pounds—and I brought it to America and to Texas, and got cattle."
Bud laughed and got up, hiding how the talk had struck deep into the soul of him. "Then I'll go you one better, dad. I'll get my own start."
"You'll be back home in six months, lad, saying you've changed your mind," Bob Birnie predicted sharply, stung by the tone of young Bud. "That," he added grimly, "or for a full belly and a clean bed to crawl into."
Bud stood licking the cigarette he had rolled to hide an unaccountable trembling of his fingers. "When I come back I'll be in a position to buy you out! I'll borrow Skate and Maverick, if you don't mind, till I get located somewhere." He paused while he lighted the cigarette. "It's the custom," He reminded his father unnecessarily, "to furnish a man a horse to ride and one to pack his bed, when he's fired."
"Ye've horses of yer own," Bob Birnie retorted, "and you've no need to borrow."
Bud stood looking down at his father, plainly undecided. "I don't know whether they're mine or not," he said after a minute. "I don't know what it cost you to raise me. Figure it up, if you haven't already, and count the time I've worked for you. Since you've put me on a business basis, like raising a calf to shipping age, let's be businesslike about it. You are good at figuring your profits—I'll leave it to you. And if you find I've anything coming to me besides my riding outfit and the clothes I've got, all right; I'll take horses for the balance."
He walked off with the swing to his shoulders that had always betrayed him when he was angry, and Bob Birnie gathered his beard into a handful and held it while he stared after him. It had been no part of his plan to set his son adrift on the range without a dollar, but since Bud's temper was up, it might be a good thing to let him go.
So Bob Birnie went away to confer with his wife, and Bud was left alone to nurse his hurt while he packed his few belongings. It did hurt him to be told in that calm, cold-blooded manner that, now he was of legal age, he would not be expected to stay on at the Tomahawk. Until his father had spoken to him about it, Bud had not thought much about what he would do when his school days were over. He had taken life as it was presented to him week by week, month by month. He had fulfilled his mother's hopes and had learned to make music. He had lived up to his father's unspoken standards of a cowman. He had made a "Hand" ever since his legs were long enough to reach the stirrups of a saddle. There was not a better rider, not a better roper on the range than Bud Birnie. Morally he was cleaner than most young fellows of his age. He hated trickery, he reverenced all good women; the bad ones he pitied because he believed that they sorrowed secretly because they were not good, because they had missed somehow their real purpose in life, which was to be wife and mother. He had, in fact grown up clean and true to type. He was Buddy, grown to be Bud.
And Buddy, now that he was a man, had been told that he was not expected to stay at home and help his father, and be a comfort to his mother. He was like a young eagle which, having grown wing-feathers that will bear the strain of high air currents, has been pecked out of the nest. No doubt the young eagle resents his unexpected banishment, although in time he would have felt within himself the urge to go. Leave Bud alone, and soon or late he would have gone—perhaps with compunctions against leaving home, and the feeling that he was somehow a disappointment to his parents. He would have explained to his father, apologized to his mother. As it was, he resented the alacrity with which his father was pushing him out.
So he packed his clothes that night, and pushed his guitar into its case and buckled the strap with a vicious yank, and went off to the bunkhouse to eat supper with the boys instead of sitting down to the table where his mother had placed certain dishes which Buddy loved best—wanting to show in true woman fashion her love and sympathy for him.
Later—it was after Bud had gone to bed—mother came and had a long talk with him. She was very sweet and sensible, and Bud was very tender with her. But she could not budge him from his determination to go and make his way without a Birnie dollar to ease the beginning. Other men had started with nothing and had made a stake, and there was no reason why he could not do so.
"Dad put it straight enough, and it's no good arguing. I'd starve before I'd take anything from him. I'm entitled to my clothes, and maybe a horse or two for the work I've done for him while I was growing up. I've figured out pretty close what it cost to put me through the University, and what I was worth to him during the summers. Father's Scotch—but he isn't a darned bit more Scotch than I am, mother. Putting it all in dollars and cents, I think I've earned more than I cost him. In the winters, I know I earned my board doing chores and riding line. Many a little bunch of stock I've saved for him by getting out in the foothills and driving them down below heavy snowline before a storm. You remember the bunch of horses I found by watching the magpies—the time we tied hay in canvas and took it up to them 'til they got strength enough to follow the trail I trampled in the snow? I earned my board and more, every winter since I was ten. So I don't believe I owe dad a cent, when it's all figured out.
"But you've done for me what money can't repay, mother. I'll always be in debt to you—and I'll square it by being the kind of a man you've tried to teach me to be. I will, mother. Dad and the dollars are a different matter. The debt I owe you will never be paid, but I'm going to make you glad I know there's a debt. I believe there's a God, because I know there must have been one to make you! And no matter how far away I may drift in miles, your Buddy is going to be here with you always, mother, learning from you all there is of goodness and sweetness." He held her two hands against his face, and she felt his cheeks wet beneath her palms. Then he took them away and kissed them many times, like a lover.
"If I ever have a wife, she's going to have her work cut out for her," He laughed unsteadily. "She'll have to live up to you, mother, if she wants me to love her."
"If you have a wife she'll be well-spoiled, young man! Perhaps it is wise that you should go—but don't you forget your music, Buddy—and be a good boy, and remember, mother's going to follow you with her love and her faith in you, and her prayers."